Ponson won't put spin on rotation turn

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Pitcher is taking move to second slot in stride

March 03, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Forget all the questions and angst about whether Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson is ready go a full season as the club's No. 3 starter. At this point, it's a dead issue.

It's being replaced by something else entirely.

Ponson and the third slot no longer go hand in hand. He'll most likely begin the season as the No. 2 starter behind Mike Mussina, pitching on April 5 against Cleveland at Camden Yards.

His climb up the rotational ladder comes at the expense of Scott Erickson, who won't be ready until mid-April at the earliest because of arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow scheduled for today in Los Angeles. Assuming the Orioles fill the hole from within, Ponson will be bumped up along with Jason Johnson and Pat Rapp.

"Numbers don't matter. I still have to go out there and do my job," Ponson said.

"It's a new experience for me. We'll just see what happens once the season starts, whether I'm nervous or not."

Taking a similar stance, Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, said the change "doesn't make that much difference."

"If you're a good pitcher, then you're a good pitcher. The categories are something that somebody created," he said. "To me, there are No. 1's and the others are just numbers. It's not the same as hitting cleanup."

Ponson's second major-league season began with him in the fourth slot behind Juan Guzman, who was traded to the Cincinnati Reds on July 31. He was 7-5 with a 3.70 ERA through 16 starts, but went 5-7 with a 5.77 ERA over his last 16. He won only once in his last nine starts after Aug. 10, and ended the season with a club record-tying 35 homers allowed in a career-high 210 innings.

Though that's hardly the type of finish that instills confidence, Ponson has been projected as a 15-game winner this year. He arrived in camp in better shape than past springs, minus only four pounds but with more muscle and less fat.

"I'm ready to go," he said. "I've been throwing since Jan. 2 and I'm feeling good."

Maduro starting today

Manager Mike Hargrove said Calvin Maduro will continue to start in Erickson's place during the spring schedule, beginning with today's exhibition opener against a Cincinnati Reds split squad in Fort Lauderdale. Maduro is one of the pitchers vying for a spot in the rotation while Erickson is gone, but Hargrove warned not to read too much into the Aruban's current assignments.

"He's one of the guys. He's just in the mix with the rest of them," Hargrove said.

There won't be any speeches from Hargrove directed at the other starters concerning Erickson's absence. He won't push for them to step up, and he won't warn against putting too much pressure on themselves.

"The less said on that end, the better," Hargrove said. "If we see somebody pressing, we'll take him aside and say, `Hey, look, you don't have to do that. Just be you.' "

Falkenborg's mission

For pitcher Brian Falkenborg, spring training isn't about making a lasting impression on the coaching staff and perhaps forcing his way onto the 25-man roster. He's here to get healthy. To get ready. To get on with his baseball life.

Falkenborg's 1999 season included a two-month stay on the disabled list with a sore right elbow, and a shocking call-up by the Orioles and major-league debut on Oct. 1. He appeared in two games, allowing two hits and no runs in three innings.

For the next four weeks, he'll try to get back on a mound.

Periodic elbow soreness over the past two years has been diagnosed as a sprained ligament. Falkenborg, a second-round pick in the 1996 draft, visited Dr. James Andrews in Alabama three weeks ago and was told to begin a rehabilitation program that included shoulder and forearm exercises. He began soft-tossing last week, from a distance of 45 feet, and projects he'll be ready to pitch at Triple-A Rochester by the start of the season.

"I'm taking it slow, being real careful with my elbow. But everything's going good," he said.

"It's been kind of biting me the last two years. I had gotten back to around 85, 90 percent healthy, throwing all three of my pitches. But then it came back and I kind of aggravated it."

Doctors have been advising Falkenborg, 22, to avoid surgery because his condition is "too mild." But he conceded yesterday that he eventually may need it if the discomfort persists.

"You don't want to have to cut on somebody unless you absolutely have to do it," he said, "but now it's getting to the point where it's coming back so much, in the future we might go in and get it fixed."

The elbow will flare up without warning. Most recently, it occurred after he left Baltimore and began preparing for this season.

"We rested it, and then I went to physical therapy every other day for about three hours," said Falkenborg, who posted a 2.89 ERA in four starts with Bowie after returning from the disabled list.

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